ROCKLAND, Maine — A Rockport woman said she is ecstatic that an Owls Head contractor who was found in a civil case to have defrauded her and her husband during the construction of their home six years ago has been criminally charged.
Robert A. Garrison, 55, of Owls Head was indicted last week by a Knox County grand jury on two counts of Class B theft by misapplication of property. The criminal charges carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Assistant District Attorney Christopher Fernald said Monday there are not many criminal theft cases filed against contractors but that it is done when the conduct is outrageous.
The last case of a contractor being prosecuted in Knox County as the result of a building project was in 2010. That case ended in a conviction in October 2012. That contractor received a suspended six-year jail term after repaying $30,000 to a downtown business owner whose building he was hired to renovate.
The theft indictments Garrison faces allege he used money paid by Jennifer and Seth Upham of Rockport and David and Beverly Gravison of Sutton, Massachusetts, who have a home in Owls Head, on other building projects and personal use.
One count alleges that the thefts occurred December 2009 through June 2010 and the other from May through December 2010. In both cases, the indictment alleges that the thefts involved more than $10,000.
Garrison said Saturday the charges were nonsense and the civil cases had long been settled.
He said he was unaware that he had been charged until his daughter read it in the BDN. No court date has been scheduled for his arraignment and paperwork, including the indictment, will be mailed to him, according to the court.
“I’ve done this work for 30 years and built more than 100 houses,” Garrison said, adding that he has not ever had any complaints about his work until the Upham project. He said the Uphams’ attorney drew the Gravisons into the matter and caused the problem. He claims he was owed money by the homeowners.
“I’m the hardest working person there is. I’m a small-business man with no staff,” he said.
Both a state judge and a federal judge have ruled in civil and bankruptcy cases that Garrison committed fraud in the Upham project. Garrison blamed his lawyer for losing the prior cases.
Then Superior Court Justice Jeffrey Hjelm awarded the Uphams damages of more than $100,000 in July 2014. He also imposed $20,000 in punitive damages finding that the evidence was clear that Garrison had committed fraud.
“Garrison repeatedly obtained money from the Uphams and then promptly diverted nearly $40,000 of it for unauthorized purposes. In essence, Garrison treated the Uphams as a funding source and did not abide by obvious practices of the industry to keep them informed of where they stood, eventually even seeking to obtain payment in excess of their contractual obligation,” Hjelm ruled.
In January 2015, Judge Louis Kornreich, chief judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, ruled that the damages ordered to be paid to the Uphams by the state court was not a debt that could be discharged, citing an exemption for not erasing a debt when it involves falsehoods or fraud.
Jennifer Upham said Monday that she is ecstatic that Garrison has been charged with a crime. She said she and her husband and the Gravisons had met with the district attorney and urged him to pursue criminal cases.
The Uphams hired Garrison in 2009 to build a house in Rockport through a fixed price contract of $235,088.
Construction began in December 2009. The Uphams fired Garrison in September 2010 because the house was significantly behind schedule and the contractor did not provide an accounting of the $197,788 already paid to him.
The Gravisons hired Garrison in 2010 to build a house in Owls Head. He began the work in May and the work stopped in December when the Gravisons refused to give the contractor any more money.
The Gravisons had a contract with Garrison to build a house for $158,000. The couple had paid Garrison $159,000 but said there was $34,000 worth of work left to do when the construction stopped.
Attorney Dana Strout, who represented the Uphams and Gravisons, helped the district attorney’s office prepare the criminal case for presentation to the grand jury. He said a review of financial records he subpoenaed from Garrison shows that when he was given checks by both the Uphams and then the Gravisons he often would spend it on a prior house construction project for which he owed money or on personal expenses.
Upham said she and her husband have spent a fortune in legal fees to pursue the civil lawsuit against Garrison.
“The time and frustration has just been horrible. And this was happening at the same time that our daughter was dealing with serious health issues,” Upham said.
Garrison is paying about $150 every month and a half to pay off the $85,000 he still owes them, she said.
“This will take them forever,” she said. The Garrisons have no property in their name, she said.
The Gravisons also were locked in a civil lawsuit against Garrison after a lien was placed on their property by E.L. Spear when Garrison failed to pay the Rockland building supply company even though the homeowners had paid Garrison. Justice Joyce Wheeler refused to enforce the lien against the homeowners since they had paid Garrison. Wheeler ordered in July 2013 that the contractor pay Spear $54,952.
Strout said fraud by contractors occurs more often than people expect. He said often it is people from out-of-state like the Gravisons who hire small and medium-size contractors. He said the Uphams were an exception in which local people were the victims.
Strout said he was so impressed by the way that Upham compiled financial records and assisted in putting together the case that he later hired her to be a paralegal for his office. Strout’s specialty is construction law.